Whoever said running your first marathon was hard was lying. It’s actually unbearably brutal.
So I guess, if you’re about to run your first marathon, you should probably stop reading now, lest you blame my disheartening account for bowing out of your first big race and start pelting me with protein gels, power glide sticks, and exploding ninja stars.
In all seriousness, my first marathon, the Chicago Marathon on October 9, 2011, wasn’t that bad—aside from the blinding pain, the loss of will to live, and the crippling nausea that overcame me afterwards. And having set fairly modest goals—one, finishing the race, and two, not dying—I was confident that I’d do okay. And I remained somewhat confident as the bastards at the weather channel kept revising their forecast right up to the day of the big race. (“Did we say high of 77? We meant 78! Woo! Oh wait…now it’s 79. Wow! A little more, and it’ll be 80 and…oh, there it is! Wow, I’d sure hate to be running a marathon tomorrow!”)
But despite everything, it was a fascinating experience, and one I’d recommend to anyone—especially masochists. Because there’s nothing quite like a marathon in Chicago to really make you appreciate the beauty of a great city and its awesomely diverse people—and help you develop a few neuroses along the way.
So here’s how Race Day unfolded…
Pre-dawn (4:45 am): Fellow marathoner and girlfriend Lourdes, brother Arturo, and I wake up, get dressed, and try not to wake up the neighbors downstairs or the rooster outside.
Dawn (5:30 a.m.): Lourdes’ sister Wendy drops us off in downtown, and hundreds of marathoners are already streaming into Grant Park. Lourdes and I meet up with our running pack—Anita, Michelle, and Deanna. What a lucky guy I am! I get to run alongside this pack of beautiful women! And… Pack of beautiful women starts talking about poop and the futility of their pre-race pooping endeavors so far, and of the need for pre-race pooping, and of how we should all poop at the Hilton’s bathrooms before heading over to Charity Village because pooping in posh Hilton bathrooms will be more productive and endearing than pooping in ghastly portable potties. Pooping operations commence. But despite their valiant efforts and sweat, they are unable to poop. Poop and its different consistencies (e.g., sawdust, hearty) becomes the only topic of conversation on our way to Charity Village.
5:56 a.m.: I begin to wonder if it’s normal for women to talk so freely and gracefully about poop.
6:00 a.m.: At Charity Village, we find our sixth pack member, Elda. Pack of beautiful women continues to discuss poop, and the five decide to reform and attack the portable potties one more time in a last-ditch attempt to dislodge poop from fortified positions within bowels. Despite flanking maneuvers and artillery support, the attacks fail. Pack of beautiful women will have to run with poop—and I fear I’ll be hearing all about poop for 26.2 miles.
6:30 a.m.: Six of us start making our way to the running corrals. We’re not sure where they are, but we’re following a mass of people, and hoping they’re not tourists on their way to Wrigley Field.
7:00 a.m.: We reach “corrals.” Somehow I envisioned wooden fences and horses. Instead, it’s tens of thousands of people in way-too-tight running shorts packed in way-too-tight streets waiting to do something—like breathing. Conversation among running pack has now shifted to the astrophysical qualities of poop.
7:28 a.m.: Someone, somewhere, is either singing the national anthem or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I honestly can’t tell. Two minutes to the official start of the race. Conversation among running pack has shifted to the world’s best poop haiku poems.
7:30 a.m.: Race officially starts with the wheelchair racers heading off. People cheer. Minutes later, the professional racers start off. People cheer. Minutes later, us sardines begin to inch forward to the starting line and have to immediately start dodging minefield of discarded sports drink and 5-hour energy and vodka bottles. People cheer.
7:51 a.m.: The six of us make it to the start line and officially take off. Great. We’re already 21 minutes behind the Kenyans. We better hustle…
7:55 a.m.: Wendy and Arturo surprise us by showing up early on in the race and cheering us on. I’d told my brother that he should have a Mexican flag on hand to wave and inspire me during the later miles. He makes one himself using markers. And it doesn’t look half bad—aside from the fact that the eagle looks like a turkey. Lourdes and I continue, inspired by my brother’s patriotic turkey.
7:56 a.m.: Disaster strikes our running pack. Poor Elda trips and falls hard. She is still in the race, but she’s hurting. We reluctantly leave her behind, but we’re happy to hear she eventually finishes the race despite her bad knee. Way to go, Elda!
After that, time and miles become a blur, so I’ll do this according to miles.
Mile 1: So far so good, but something doesn’t seem right. Because I’m already sweating, and I don’t usually start sweating until the third mile. Must be hotter than those weather.com bastards said. Lots of people cheering and holding signs like “You can do it!” Running pack arguing about who would win a fight: Hulk Hogan or Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo. All is well with the world.
Mile 2: Passing through Chicago’s downtown, running idly down busy avenues where normally doing so would get us all killed. Not to worry: the discarded bottles of 5-hour energy drinks might do the job just as well. Crowds all around us still cheering and holding signs like, “You can still do it!” Anita, Michelle, and Deanna are trying to catch up to the Kenyans. My legs and I begin to talk.
Legs: Uh, dude, don’t even think about it. Slow it down.
Me: But we should keep up! We’re running as a pack!
Legs: Nope. Slow it down or else.
Legs: Or do you really want to hear about how the first Greek marathoner pooped?
Me: …okay, slowing down.
Lourdes and I slow down and let running pack leave us behind. We run across the first smartass sign of the day: “I thought they said 2.62 miles.” At the time, this is still funny.
Mile 3: Things are looking good. We’ve got a good, manageable pace, and we’re no longer dodging dangerous bottles of liquid energy. People still cheering and holding signs. One girl standing on a divider is high-fiving runners wearing a Hamburger Helper mitt. Who can say no to that? High-five! Legs tell me they’re doing good. Piece of cake. Spectator signs continue to inspire us, though we have to pretend that our names are Keith, Jane, Mike, and Telemachus to get full effect. Legs and I still engaging in casual chit-chat.
Legs: Now a sign reading, “Go, Legs, Go,” would be more encouraging.
Me: Do you guys really need encouragement?
Legs: Nah, we’re cool.
Miles 4 – 5: Things still looking good, but Lourdes and I decide that running with that uncomfortable sensation of needing to urinate badly probably bad for legs and kidneys. So we make our first pit stop just outside Lincoln Park. I think. Portable potties are already well-attended by dozens of fellow marathoners. Luckily, no spectators outside potties waving signs reading, “Yay! Urine!” Lourdes and I resume, and feel infinitely better. Right beyond restroom area, a live band is playing “Please Please Me” by The Beatles. Oh yeah!
Legs: Awesome song.
Me: Oh, you need encouraging?
Legs: Nah, we’re cool.
Miles 6 – 7: I know we’re running somewhere in Chicago, I’m just not sure where. By now, we’ve already drank a couple of rounds of Gatorade, which volunteers are offering up every mile or so. Worried about my heavy sweating and loss of electrolytes, I drink lots of Gatorade. Seeds of catastrophe slowly being planted. One sign, held up by a pretty young woman, says that she likes people with stamina and includes her phone number. Lourdes and I laugh—and then Lourdes threatens me with death if I even try remembering phone number. A group of Japanese drummers cheer us on, and I feel encouraged—and start wishing their drummers can follow us for another 10 miles or so.
Miles 8 – 9: We’ve heard that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual will be waiting for us all at Mile 10 to cheer us on and offer us Gatorade. We look forward to this. We’re running past Boys Town, and it’s a very festive environment. People are waving rainbow flags. Guys in drag are performing Lady Gaga. Gay men dressed in cowboy outfits are dancing. In other words, a Republican’s dream come true. One guy holds up my favorite sign so far: “Keep running, because the zombies are coming after you.” Nice! Meanwhile, legs are starting to complain.
Legs: Okay, this is harder than we thought. Whew…
Me: Well, it’s only mile 8.
Legs: Thanks a lot.
Me: But…Rahm Emanual will greet us at Mile 10!
Legs: And that’s supposed to encourage us how?
Me: …just sayin’.
At this point, we’re guessing the Kenyans have already won, perhaps just narrowly beating our original running pack, who lost valuable seconds when they stopped to harangue a spectator with a sign reading, “Don’t poop your pants.”
Mile 10: Betrayal. Despair. Rahm Emanual is nowhere to be seen. Our spirits sink. Truth be told, we’d only run this far to have him cheer us on and offer us Gatorade. Legs don’t take the news well.
Legs: WHERE’S RAHM???!!!!
Me: It’s okay, it’s okay…
Legs: WHERE IS HE??!!! YOU SAID HE’D BE HERE!!!
Me: I know, I know, but, hey, we’re at mile 10! That means only 16.2 miles to go!
Legs: Oh, ONLY! You lying bastard!!! YOU SAID RAHM WOULD BE HERE!!!
At least there’s Gatorade, which I continue to drink, because it has electrolytes and stuff.
Miles 11 – 12: We’re running past…someplace. Lourdes is explaining as we go, but I’m starting to tune her out—a full 10 miles ahead of schedule. Oh boy… But at mile 11 or so, I see a patriotic turkey fluttering above the crowds! Hey wait, it’s Wendy and Arturo! They found us a second time! Yay! This time we actually stop to talk to them, hug them, and sweat all over them. We continue to run, and Lourdes sees a friend of hers. He’s standing next to a guy wearing a giant New Balance sneaker costume. She stops to hug her friend and sweat over him. Meanwhile, the giant sneaker and I exchange an awkward silence.
Legs: He’s looking at us funny.
Me: Just don’t make eye contact.
Mile 13.1: We’re supposed to be making a big deal about the fact that we’ve reached the halfway point of the race. But I’m not feeling too celebratory, because I’m already struggling—well ahead of schedule thanks to the heat and the onset of nausea (thank you, Gatorade). Legs aren’t having it.
Legs: 13.1???!! Oh gods no!!!
Me: It’s okay. Just think of it this way! We just have to run the same exact distance we’ve already run. That’s all.
Legs: …that is NOT helping!!!!!
By now, we’re certain the Kenyans are in their hotel rooms, watching the marathon on TV and laughing at all of us.
Mile 14 – 15: Okay, so this is getting harder than I thought. But gotta keep going. Oh wait, the patriotic turkey again! Wendy and Arturo have caught up with us a third time! Yay! We stop to briefly chat. Arturo offers us some coconut water, which is supposed to be good for you because it’s got potassium and electrolytes and is good for you. So I think, “Well, maybe I should take a little, because I don’t think I can drink anymore Gatorade and I’m dehydrating, and who cares if I actually hate coconut juice, so let me just take a sip and…” Oh. Dear. Gods. Mental note: Never, ever, ever drink warm coconut juice when you’re already feeling the urge to blow chunks. For the next 10 minutes, I can’t get the nauseating taste of coconut water out of my mouth.
We pass by the Charity Block Party, where team members from the different running teams set up tents and cheer us on enthusiastically because they’re not the ones agonizing in the 80-degree heat. I tell myself that, if I can just get to Mile 19 and Pilsen, where all the Mexicans are, I’ll be okay. Never mind the fact that it’s still five or so excruciating miles away. Meanwhile, legs are starting to hate me.
Legs: Okay, seriously, why did you get us into this?!
Me: Um…you know, cos it’ll be an achievement and stuff.
Legs: And you can’t, like, go for a high score in Pac-Man instead???!!!
Somewhere around here, we run into two of Lourdes’ teammates: Fish and Jen. The four of us decide to run together. In my mind, I’m thinking, “Thank gods. Now the three of them can drag my lifeless body across the finish line.”
Mile 16: We’re running, but I have no idea where. I’m assuming we’re still in Chicago, though it feels like we’re already in Gary, Indiana. We’re surrounded by empty industrial parks and lots. Few spectators. It’s desolate. A good place to curl up and die. Have to keep going. Have to keep running. Have to…screw it. For the first time, I tell my perky, super-experienced marathoner girlfriend that I need to walk for a bit. It’s either that, or have my heart explode. Legs are thankful.
Me: See? Isn’t that better?
Me: But, uh, we’re walking.
Mile 17: I foolishly state that we are now in single digits. Only nine more miles to go! Fish tells me that this is not at all reassuring. Thanks to the burning pain in my legs and feet, the crippling nausea, and the odd hallucinations now playing tricks on me, I concur: there is NOTHING encouraging about what I’ve just said.
Legs: Do us a favor? SHUT UP!!!!
Me: ………don’t worry, magic protein gel, I’ll save you.
By now, we’re certain the Kenyans are on the plane back to Kenya and still laughing.
Mile 18: By now, each red mile marker becomes a beacon of hope…and a reminder of the futility of it all. “Oh sweet merciful gods, I see the 18 mile marker! Woo! Oh gods…that means we still have 8 interminable miles to go! Oh dear gods.” Admittedly, I don’t have the lucidity to come up with words like “interminable” anymore. In fact, I can barely speak. Fish asks me how I feel. Unable to summon the physical capacity to verbally articulate, “I feel nothing but excruciating pain throughout every inch of my body,” I simply say, “I feel nothing.”
Mile 19: All right! Pilsen, one of the two Mexican neighborhoods in Chicago! And just as I thought, the sight of all those Mexican flags waving, and fellow Mexicanos cheering me on when they see my Mexico shirt gives me a much needed adrenaline boost! Yeah!!!! Will to live returning! And my brother is there too, and he cheers me on one last time before heading off to the finish line—where he assumes I’ll arrive at some point today. I’m recharged and enthusiastic! So many flags! Mexican rancheras playing on speakers! People chanting encouragements in Spanish! Okay, I’ve got this! Woo! Sí se puede!!!!!!!
Mile 19.4: Adrenaline rush ends. Despair and agony return.
Miles 20 – 21: Everything becomes a blur—of pain. We pass by Chinatown, and I’d hoped I’d be more lucid to enjoy it. Alas, I can barely see straight. Meanwhile, Lourdes, experienced marathoner that she is, remains perky and energetic, posing for photographers and chatting with Fish and Jen and, I think, stopping to help a Habitat for Humanity group build a house. All I can think about is the agony. She’d told me that, from mile 20 on, it’s all about heart. Too bad my heart felt like it exploded miles ago. And my legs are totally losing it.
Legs: …who would win in a dogfight? A P-51 or Dumbo?
Legs: Dumbo…not even aerodynamically possible. Totally unrealistic. Now Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand…
Me: …just keep going, guys.
By now, we’re certain the Kenyans are already back in Kenya training for Boston.
Mile 22: I honestly don’t know if, at this point, the Care Bears started running alongside us, or if I just hallucinated it. But that one Care Bear flipping me off and speeding off onto Mile 23 sure looked real to me…
Mile 23: I keep thinking that, maybe, another big crowd of Mexicans will be coming up with flags and stuff and I’ll get inspired. No such luck. Gotta suck it up. By now, it really is all about heart. Lourdes and I decide no more walking. We want to run it in. So we start running. Legs are so not having it…
Legs: WHAT ARE YOU DOING???!!!!
Me: C’mon, guys, we want to finish strong.
LEGS: SCREW THAT!! WALK! WALK!!!! C’MON! NOOOO!!!!! WHY DON’T YOUR ARMS DO SOMETHING INSTEAD???!!!
Arms: Hey, we’re swinging for momentum. And we feel just fine.
Me: See? If they can keep going, surely you guys can.
Legs: YOU M-FERS!!!!!!!!!!
Mile 24: Despite the nausea, I decide to keep drinking water, because I know I’m already dehydrating badly. By now, we’re both drinking one cup of water, and unceremoniously dunking another one over our heads. Lourdes tells me that it’s a straight shot from here on. No more twists and turns and detours and connecting flights to Baltimore and treks across the Sahara. No, now, it’s all Michigan Avenue, straight to the finish line. Of course, all I can see is a vast expanse of Michigan Avenue Eternity, and don’t feel the least bit reassured. Neither do legs.
Legs: It’s all over…all over…can’t…go…on…anymore.
Me: Yes you can. And…
Legs: SHUT UP! We’re not TALKING TO YOU ANYMORE!!!
By now, we’re certain the Kenyans have started the Boston Marathon somehow.
Mile 25: You can tell we’re among the last runners, because the crowds have definitely thinned. But there are still crowds lining Michigan Avenue cheering us on. A young African-American woman holds up the sign I most need to see: “Pain is temporary, Defeat is forever.” Hmm, it’s a slight variation of an earlier sign that read, “Pain is temporary, Triumph is forever.” For some reason, the negative connotation of “Defeat is forever” strikes a more resonant chord with me. New determination sets in. We’re so finishing this. Even legs stop talking to me. Though this is only because they’ve probably now died and have become zombie legs. That’s what it feels like, anyway.
Along that last mile, I find a very unexpected surge of inspiration. A DJ is playing Arcade Fire’s Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels), one of my favorite songs ever. The song gives me a much-needed boost of adrenaline. Even my legs start singing.
Legs: then I’ll dig a tunnel, from my window to yours…
Me: Yeeeaah, a tunnel, from my window to yours.
Legs: You climb down a chimney
Me: And meet me in the middle, the middle of the town.
Legs: …what’s the next lyric?
Me: Um…keep going…it’s only a mile to go…yeah.
Legs: …are you sure?
Lourdes and I speed up for the final mile. I start cramping up, even in my arms. I start thinking of those old Castrol Oil commercials where they show what happens when you drain all the oil from a car engine and it just goes CRASH. Hmmm…not a very reassuring thought…
Mile 26: Oh dear gods. Almost there. Lourdes and I both speed up. I don’t know if she can feel her legs; I know I can’t anymore. Anyway, it’s .2 miles to go. We’ve got this. No problem.
Mile 26.1: I discover that the designers of the Chicago Marathon are sadists and beings of pure, utter, ungranulated evil. Because, seriously, you make us RUN UP A BRIDGE for that last part of the run?????!!!! Why not just have us climb up Mt. Everest while you’re at it???!!!! BASTARDS!!!!
The final stretch: Up ahead is the Finish Line. Oh gods, it’s so far away! I’ll never make it!!!! Especially since Lourdes is now running at Mach 2.1 and I have to keep up!!!! But, to our left, my brother and Lourdes’ dad, sister, and niece are there cheering us on! And the patriotic turkey flutters once more! Oh glorious Mexican turkey, for thee I run! Mexicanos al grito de gueeeeeerra…Lourdes and I blaze through the Finish Line (yes, I’m title capping Finish Line because you too would hold it in high esteem once you’ve run 26.2 miles). It’s all over!!!!!! We made it!!!! Oh sweet merciful gods, thank you!!!! We even beat the Care Bears! YEAH!!! Up ahead, people are offering bananas, bottled water, and that Gatorade G3 stuff (which I call Meat Gatorade because that’s what it tastes like). And, just beyond the bananas and Meat Gatorade, are the medals. I’m glad to get one, though I’m fearful its weight will tip me over. Thankfully, it doesn’t.
My suspicion that sadists designed the marathon is confirmed. Because Lourdes and I need to return to Charity Village to collect our stuff and meet our family. And so, the planners decided, “Hey, you know what’ll be really funny? Let’s put Charity Village a whole mile AFTER the finish line! That’ll make those little crybabies cry like little bitches! Yeah!” “I agree, oh Cruel One. But you forgot to title-cap Finish Line.”
A whole agonizing, interminable, endless, grueling, carnage-laden mile later, Lourdes and I manage to limp back to Charity Village. (Well, I limped back. She was doing cartwheels and high-fiving a couple of helicopter pilots.) And at the moment, all I can think is, “Never again. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever again.” My legs second the notion.
Legs: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever…
Legs: No, no. Sorry, but if you want to talk to us, you’ll have to do so through our lawyers, whom you’ll be hearing from tomorrow.
Legs: No, no, sorry. That’s all we have to say to you.
Meanwhile, we figure the Kenyans are already starting the 2012 Chicago Marathon and will be blasting past us within a couple of minutes.
Will I run another one?
Don’t let this quasi-facetious account of my first marathon dissuade you from running one yourself. Keep in mind that the day was unusually hot, I didn’t hydrate properly (I don’t care what the Gatorade commercials say, it does NOT have what your body needs), and my game was thrown off early by all the incongruous poop deliberations. Will I run another one? That depends on when you asked me.
Right after the marathon: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever…
The day after the marathon: Well…maybe…some day…I might try again.
Two days after the marathon: So NEXT TIME, what I need to do is take SALT TABLETS! And, oh, I’m going to bicycle 14 miles a DAY to improve my quad muscles! And OH, I’m going to feed the race pack nothing but PRUNES the day before to eliminate all poop issues! And, OH…